A country wide power outage on Friday exposed the government’s vulnerability. The knock -on effect it had disrupted the national water supply and permeated through to even the functioning of traffic lights and offices which reportedly closed early. The blackout happened the same time that the Ceylon Electricity Board Engineers Union had launched a work to rule campaignand it sparked speculation about sabotage. Union members ruled it out, attributing theblackout to a transmission line failure and gave a guarantee that their engineers were working continuously to restore power to the country. They also called off their work to rule after the president spoke to them on the telephone and gave an assurance that their demands will be looked at. Among these demands is the cancellation of the sale of the Yughanadavipower plant to American company New Fortress Energy. A follow up meetingbetween the government and the Union has been planned for next week. While the CEB Union succeeded in deflecting the ire of the people by remaining engaged with the task of restoring power, for the government it was a different story. Bogged down in a quagmire of issues it was another reason for the public to up the ante on calls for its resignation.

The biggest headache for the people is the enormous concern surrounding the explosionsthat have been taking place in homes and commercial establishments all over the country. While the final recommendations of a committee appointed by the president to probe the explosions are expected soon, the groundswell of opinion including those of some experts is that the explosions are linked to a change in the composition of butane and propane gases in cylinders. There have been close to 100 explosions that have been reportedwhile the number which may be going unreported or even disputed is not known. For instance last week a family from Welikandaheld the funeral of their daughter who was also a young wife, after she succumbed to burns while she was being treated in the Colombo National Hospital. The police who are being accused of a cover up, claim the girl died because she committed suicide. Their conclusion is based largely on the investigations of a Scene Of Crime Officer and the testimony of a neighbour who had gone to help the girl to douse the fire which had engulfed her. The JMO’s report states she died from an infection of her burns. The report does not state the cause for the burns. However while the girl was being treated in the local hospital in Polonaruwa she told her father that she got burnt when she tried to light the gas cooker in her kitchen.  The truth about how and why she died was interred along with her and will never be known.

While the country burns it has been dilly dallying and has not acted fast enough nor given leadership to bring the situation under control.Despite it being weeks into the incidents, the two gas companies Litro Gas Lanka Ltd and Laughs Gas and government MPs are deflecting accountability and responsibility for the explosions. Litro Gas Lanka Ltd, the company which is supplying gas almost exclusively to the country at the moment after its competitor Laughs Gas was edged out because of price controls, is owned by the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation which belongs to the state. The government therefore has a 100 percent stake in the company. Last week’s preposterous claim by Badulla district Sri Lanka Podujana PeramunaMP Janaka Thissa Kuttiarachchi that the explosions are because of faulty gas cookers came on the heels of Vasudeva Nanayakkara’scomment that the explosions are because of an increased use of gas. Nanayakkara is a government coalition partner.

Thushan Gunawardena, a former Executive Director at the Consumer Affairs Authority has been raising the alarm for months about the actions of Litro Gas and the alleged change to the composition in its liquefied petroleum gas which was done without expert consultation. His mails to Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardene and State Minister of Cooperative Services, Marketing Development and Consumer Protection Lasantha Alagiyawannafrom as far back as April this year to bringthematter to their notice have been ignored.

Gunawardena has been vocal about Litro lying about the features in the new premium hybrid 18 litre domestic gas cylinder it introduced to the market earlier this year and has taken steps to sue the company. According to him Litro has been claiming falsely that it is a new product when it is not.  Product tests have confirmed it contains the same chemical properties as the old one. Attributes that the new product is of an international standard with higher efficiency with more cooking time, are also being denied by Gunawardena. Beyond this he is resolute about his claim that the composition of the gasin the cylinder was changed to equal parts of 50: 50 butane and propane from the customary 70:30 ratio to save on costs. Propane is a volatile gas and the composition should have at least 30 percent of it. Gunawardena argues that the build- up of pressure inside the cylinder as a result of the change to the composition is causing the gas to leak from the valve and the regulator. In Sri Lanka, while the gas cylinder, regulator, valve and tube are regulated, the composition is not. Although the cylinder specifications are regulated, the lacunae nevertheless is that it has no tracking mechanism.  The serial number which used to be on the cylinder when Shell was supplying gas is not there anymore and in the event of a fire the paint on the cylinder will also burn off. Not only will this make it impossible to track but it will also make insurance claims difficult.

By the time the suspension of gas distribution was announced on Friday it was too little, too late. Some 60 more explosions had already been reported on the Thursday before. The suspension was to give gas companies time to add ethyl mercaptan to the gas cylinders which will take a couple of days to complete before distribution resumes. Mercaptan is a clear liquid which has a pungent odour is added to odourlessgases like butane and propane to give out a smell to warn users if there is a gas leak from the cylinder. The last shipment of gas to Sri Lanka reportedly didn’t have this additive.

Although State Minister Alagiyawanna ruled out a recall of the faulty cylinders, JVP MP Vijitha Herath told parliament that there should be a recall. Gunawardena too is of the same view but that it should have been done a long time ago. He emphasizes the need for a compliance framework incorporating the sale, distribution and storage of cylinders and a monitoring mechanism for it.

The final recommendations of the committee appointed by the president to probe the explosions are expected soon.

Health sector union chief Ravi Kumudesh wrote to President Gotabaya Rajapakse about measures that should be taken at the Bandaranaike International Airport to stop the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 from spreading in Sri Lanka. It follows the announcement by health ministry and Health Promotion Bureau officials late in the week about the detection of the first case in the country with this new variant.

The letter to the president which was signed by Ravi Kumudesh in his capacity as the President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science raised many alarming points that must be addressed immediately if Sri Lanka is to contain the spread of the new variant. Key among them are that there are no on arrival PCR testing and compulsory quarantine requirements. The letter also listed that there is no method to check a passengers previous travel history which is crucial for passengers arriving from high risk countries. The requirement for a Rapid Antigen-PCR test to be done 72 hours prior to boarding is mentioned as a cause for concern given Omicron’s high rate of spread. Among the proposed preventive measures are on arrival Rapid Antigen and PCR testing for all incoming and transit passengers, the quarantining of positive passengers at government quarantine centres and for sequencing of positive samples. The use of the two laboratories of the Airport and Aviation Services for the rapid antigen and PCR testing have been recommended.  They have the capacity to issue reports within three hours.

Meanwhile contrary to reports, the new variant was detected in a woman who had come from Nigeria after attending a conference there and not from South Africa. She and her husband had arrived on 24th November which was before the Bandaranaike International Airport was closed to travellers from Africa following the WHOs announcement on 26th November that Omicron was a variant of concern. President of the Public Health Inspectors Union Upul Rohana said that a PCR test had been done on the woman who is from Mahawewa in Marawila, because she had not been vaccinated and the result had been positive. She had been sent to the Lunawaquarantine facility for quarantining and from there had been sent home. According to quarantine regulations, she has to submit a PCR report after home quarantining for seven days.  Rohana said that because the PHIs Union had not been officially informed about the womanthey were unable to follow up with her and her contacts.  They will start an investigation into the events surrounding the incident and other matters such as how an unvaccinated person was able to go in an aircraft. (SW)



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